A Guide for Sign Shops: Taking the Plunge into Digital Fine Art and Photo
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A Guide for Sign Shops: Taking the Plunge into Digital Fine Art and Photo

This article will focus on the wide range of digital art media in assorted weights, textures and finishes that can affect how the final image looks and feels. And also provide sign shops with useful tips and advice for successfully jumping into this lucrative market.

By Jennifer Chagnon, Senior Marketing Manager, InteliCoat Technologies

Digital fine art and photography has been a reality for a while now, with many sign shops already taking the plunge.

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  • Despite the overwhelming interest in this lucrative niche market among sign shops, there are several factors to consider before jumping in. As sign shops turn to producing art reproductions digitally, it is critical that they understand the fine art and photography market, as well as the various options available today.

    To meet the high expectations of digital fine artists and photographers, manufacturers have designed a plethora of inks, printers and media which can be combined for an unending amount of finishes. This article will focus on one piece of the puzzle: the wide range of digital art media in assorted weights, textures and finishes that can affect how the final image looks and feels. In addition to an overview of the media available for the production of fine art and photography applications, it will provide sign shops with useful tips and advice for successfully jumping into the lucrative market.

    Digital Fine Art and Photo Media Landscape
    With the increased revenue and overall profitability afforded by digital fine art and photography comes a discerning customer base consisting of three key market segments - true giclée fine art, art reproduction for décor, and fine art photography - which produce applications for a wide variety of end-users. Not only does the fine art and photography market present many opportunities for today's sign shop, but it poses a lot of demands, including calls for image stability and reliability; the supplier's ability to meet rush orders; and the supplier's ability to respond to color critical and technical support questions. Print quality and repeatability are important factors for reproduction printing as well, since it's critical for prints to look the same regardless of when the print was issued or sold.

    While many sign shops are content using traditional fine art media such as matte papers, photobase papers, fine art / rag papers and canvas, there are an increasing amount of sign shops looking for ways to differentiate themselves by opting for unique specialty media for some of the standard and emerging applications in this market. Among the most popular non-traditional media being employed, fabrics, backlit films, glossy white films, wall coverings and adhesive products have become attractive options for sign shops looking for less conventional media.

    Traditional Fine Art and Photo Media
    Matte and Art Papers:
    Featuring highly absorbent coatings, matte and art papers draw ink into the base for exceptional imaging. Commonly available in matte or gloss/semi-gloss finishes that mimic traditional fiber base silver halide prints, matte papers are ideal for presentations, posters, proofing, and map-making. They have become an increasingly cost-effective option in today's volatile economy.

    Photorealistic Papers:
    Less expensive than true photobase papers, the inkjet coatings of photorealistic papers result in photorealistic images. Unlike photobase paper, photorealistic papers are not a true polyethylene sheet as the polyethylene is only on one side. The result is less than the traditional feel of C-Prints.

    Photobase Papers:
    Today's popular photobase papers feature microporous coatings to enable ink into tiny passageways for UV and oxidation protection from fade - protecting the image and maintaining dot integrity for better quality imaging. Additionally, photobase papers are commonly constructed to meet archival standards and enable instant dry time. In contrast to photorealistic and matte presentation papers, photobase papers support greater ink load and no paper cockle, making them ideal for not only photo reproduction, but point-of-sale graphics as well. It's important to note that there are some solvent and eco-solvent compatible photobase papers, as well as universal options, available in the market today to fit a sign shop's unique needs.

    Fine Art / Rag Papers:
    Most typically characterized by their 100% cotton construction, fine art / rag papers are ideal for fine art photography and art reproductions. Sign shops should look for papers manufactured to archival standards by being acid-free/lignin-free and with no optical brightening agents (OBA's), which are chemical additives that absorb ultra violet light and reflect blue visible light. While these materials are effective in brightening dull fibers, they are not permanent and will fade and ultimately cause the print to appear much more yellow. Beyond being free of OBA's, digital fine art / rag papers should be specially coated to ensure controlled dot gain with superior colors and high DMAX.

    Canvas offers many different surface finishes; from matte to high-gloss, and smooth to highly textured, which makes selecting the perfect canvas something of a task in itself. Canvas bases are usually made from cotton or polyester or a blend of the two. Their ink jet coatings allow a rather large reservoir for ink and yield very high gamut imagery.

    Glossy finishes for both 100% cotton and poly/cotton canvases can provide water resistance, higher density and an increased level of stretch ability. In contrast, matte canvases are naturally water resistant and their weave patterns are more evident to offer a more traditional canvas look and feel. As a result, matte canvases enable a custom level of gloss as determined by the selection of a top coat.

    • 100% Cotton Canvase
      s are available in either a gloss or matte finish and are best suited for small run fine art reproductions where acute differences between prints are desired. These highly textured canvases feature natural imperfections and irregularities to allow for original unique character from print to print, resulting in an authentic and natural look and feel.
    • Poly/Cotton Canvases
      are more durable than cotton canvas and provide a smoother, more consistent texture, making them ideal for large or small production runs where consistency from image to image is desired. Delivering the look and feel of canvas with less natural artifacts, poly/cotton canvases, available in gloss or matte finishes, deliver a smoother more consistent texture. Poly/cotton canvases also feature a higher level of stretch ability than 100% cotton canvases. With the emerging demands from mass merchants, retail and hospitality venues for décor prints, poly/cotton canvases have become an even more popular option.

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    Making Non-Traditional Media Work for Fine Art Success
    Sign shops are constantly looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the competition. One of the easiest and more noticeable ways to do this is through media selection. Sign shops in pursuit of unique specialty media for some of the standard and emerging applications in this market should consider some of the non-traditional media options highlighted below.

    Backlit Films:
    Although backlit films are not new to the sign industry, they offer a unique and innovative approach to displaying artwork or photography. By enhancing color pop, backlit films call attention to the piece and can dramatically change/alter the effect of a piece of artwork, which could offer an attractive approach for a fine artist or photographer.

    Glossy White Films:
    At a slightly less cost than backlit films, glossy white films feature a high white point and gloss point that enable higher densities. Like backlit films, glossy white films also enhance color pop to offer an eye-catching way to display photographic reproductions.

    By taking advantage of the advancements in the digital imaging marketplace, various fabric solutions can be utilized for fine art applications. Sign shops can employ both fabrics with and without adhesive for photography, art displays and sublimation.

    Pressure Sensitive Adhesive Products:
    Pressure sensitive adhesive-backed media are becoming increasingly viable options for applications in the fine art and photography market. In contrast to mounting jobs using traditional media, pressure sensitive adhesive media can result in a 30% to 40% cost savings and 20% to 30% reduction in production time to streamline the process for sign professionals.

    As those in the sign industry know, custom murals and borders for homes and entertainment venues provide a lucrative revenue stream. There are a wide variety of media options available today meeting ASTM requirements for commercial wallcovering.

    Checklist of Characteristics for Creating Fine Art and Photo Applications
    Regardless of whether a sign professional employs traditional or non-traditional media options for the creation of fine art and photography applications, there are a few common characteristics to consider outlined below:

    • Image permanence and true color fidelity:
      A number of factors, including the type of coating and whiteness of the coating, will affect the longevity of the image as well as how vibrant images will appear so choose your media choices carefully. The substrate and coating components can also affect the longevity of the image, as can the type of ink used (pigmented inks should be used for real image permanence).
    • Optical brightening agents:
      Papers without OBAs are preferred for the most color stable prints. OBAs can result in an image that has more "pop" because they make a medium appear brighter; however, they are not permanent. Since the observed color of a print is a result of a combination of the substrate color as well as the inks used, the substrate color will change (yellow) when the OBAs fade. This means that the use of OBAs will affect the color of the print as it ages. It is important to note that it is often common practice to use negligible amounts of OBA's for on machine inspection in the inkjet coating process. These trace amounts are not used to enhance the whiteness and brightness of the product and have no negative impact on the longevity or achievability of the end product.
    • High archival quality:
      To ensure the archivability of images, sign shops should use acid- and lignin- free media since both acid and lignin can contribute to premature discoloration of paper. A naturally occurring component found in trees, lignin is the material that causes newspapers to yellow quickly when left out in the sun. As mentioned earlier, archival papers typically have buffering agents to prevent acidification from environmental factors.
    • Water resistance:
      Consider the environment the application will be exposed to and choose water-resistant coatings that are free of optical brighteners when necessary.
    • Optimized coatings for high-quality color reproduction:
      Media for fine art and photography applications should be coated to accept heavy ink loads without substrate cockling or ink mottling. Exceeding the ink saturation limit can result in paper cockle, which affects printer conveyance and finishing. It's important to use products are that are designed with optimized coatings that result in good dot gain and excellent color output.
    • Easy to protect and mount: Fine art and photography applications need to incorporate high quality archival imaging media, as well as finishing and mounting products that have archival qualities.

    The digital fine art and photo market presents a wealth of opportunities for sign shops looking to expand business and increase profitability. As sign shops jump into this market, it is critical for them to gain an understanding of the high expectations required, as well as the various media options. By simply utilizing a combination of traditional and non-traditional media offerings for fine art and photography applications, sign shops can take advantage of the endless opportunities available to successfully jump into the lucrative market.

    About the Author
    Jennifer Chagnon serves as senior marketing manager for InteliCoat Technologies. Chagnon has a strong background in commercialization of manufactured products, as well as experience in marketing and promoting consumer products. Chagnon is also a frequent speaker at industry conferences, trade shows and conventions. For additional information, visit http://www.magicinkjet.com.

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